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Archives Home : Features> Archives> A Successful Return to the Trailwalker

by Nate McDowell

In 2001, Montrail sent a team of four men to compete in the Oxfam Hong Kong’s Trailwalker 100 Km, a charity event devoted to raising funds for development and poverty relief for people in underdeveloped nations. That race was a great success both for Oxfam and for Team Montrail (see January/February 2002 issue of UltraRunning). Shortly after that race, I visited the village of a native

H’mong tribe in northern Vietnam. These people had neither electricity nor sewage systems, nor minimal health care. However, as I entered the village from the muddy rice paddies, I discovered a well-constructed building (complete with windows) with a plaque outside that indicated the building was a schoolhouse for the tribal children that had been built with funds donated by Oxfam in 1986. The 2001 race had been a highlight of my competitive ultrarunning career; however, seeing this schoolhouse put the race into perspective. Yes, we ran a great race that year, but more than that, we helped raise money for people who do not even have the opportunity to simply go for a run. Like so many in our global society, they must rather focus on the primary task of living and protecting their families from hunger, oppression, and violence. I knew that if Montrail sent a team in 2002, I would be honored to participate again.

Trailwalker 2002 did happen for Team Montrail, with some new and exciting additions. This year we added a women’s team (see the article by Janice Anderson). It was unclear how stiff the competition would be or the course record was for the women’s race, but their team consisted of four strong runners with the common goal of winning the race. On the men’s side, Scott Jurek and I returned, with two new teammates: Brandon Sybrowsky and Karl Meltzer. Brandon, Karl and I had each run well two months previously at the Wasatch 100 Mile, which boosted our confidence going into the race. Scott was also running well after his fourth win at Western States the previous June. Scott and I had course knowledge, which we felt would help our time by reducing the need for route finding. We were optimistic. However, our local hosts PROTREK (a distributor of Montrail shoes in Hong Kong) reported that the local heroes, the Cosmo Boys (second in 2001 by 23 minutes) were training hard and going for the win. In addition, the champions of 2002 Trailwalker U.K. and Trailwalker Australia were reportedly coming, as were a strong team of Gurkha’s (Nepalese soldiers) from Singapore. The competition was strong and many expected that winning the race might require another course record.

Here are a few other details on the race. The structure is unique: four-person teams run the entire race together, similar to an adventure race. All four members must stay together the entire way, checking into nine different checkpoints along the course together. A team is disqualified (although allowed to continue non-competitively) if any member of the team drops out. Checkpoints also provide water, medical services, and very limited food. No drop bag service exists. Therefore, runners are dependent upon crews to provide food, clothing, flashlights, and extra water. Crews can access runners anywhere on the course. Our local hosts PROTREK prevented us from severe dehydration by placing a number of their friends and employees along the course with water for us. This was necessitated by the infrequent occurrence of aid stations. The race starts late by our standards (10:00 a.m.) and it is dark at 6:00 p.m., causing even the fastest teams to run 40 percent of the race in the dark. The course is marked with permanent stakes located every 500 meters, which facilitates monitoring of distance covered along the course, however no additional flagging or chalk is used on the race day. There are numerous trail intersections that are not marked; logic and luck become important for route finding.

The course is also unique. Approximately 40 percent is on paved surfaces, split approximately evenly between roads (which are closed to traffic) and paved single-track paths. The remainder is on dirt or rock surfaces. The first six miles are nearly flat, and until 15 miles the course remains merely rolling, with only a few hills that require hiking. At that point, the course profile changes entirely. From mile 15 to approximately 50, the course is filled with technical, rocky, and extremely steep trails. The total vertical gain in the race is approximately 14,000 feet, the vast majority of which is located in these 35 middle miles. Stairs made of stone are abundant on the steeper sections of the course, making climbing easier, but causing greater impact on quad muscles on the descents. The result is greater than normal damage to runner’s quads and knees. The last 12 miles are gentle downhill and flat roads and trails. Runners switch from power-hiking and technical downhill running to high-turnover running during this last stretch. Because of this unique combination of pavement, trail, steep vertical climbs, and flats, the course requires both the strength and agility of a mountain runner and the speed of a road runner. It was challenging and fun.

After many chopstick meals of Dim Sum and other Cantonese delights, race day finally dawned, hot and humid. It was substantially hotter than last year, so we kept our initial pace slow. Despite the easy pace, we assumed the lead after only a mile. After the first water stop at 10 km, I looked back to see our women’s team in the distance. We would never see them again, but would get numerous reports from our crew of their race.

The first 25 km included a section on a white sand beach along the South China Sea, passing through two small villages accessible only by foot, over a large, technical hill on a dirt trail, followed by a rolling ascent up a long, paved trail with some stairs. During this stage Scott made the sage remark, “I know its only 100 km, but we need to run this race like a 100-miler.” He was right. Even though many of us are capable of a sub nine-hour 100-km times on courses such as Miwok in the U.S., our experience from last year (a course record 12:52) showed that this course required a slower, more cautious approach. We decided to continue our cautious pace, which was nearly the same as last year at the 25-km mark.

As we ran between the high, exposed Ma On Shan and Buffalo Passes after 30 km, I surveyed each of my teammates to ascertain their well being. “Good enough,” was Brandon Sybrowsky’s reply. Brandon was cruising the uphills and flats, dealing as well as he could with his nemesis, the steep, staircase downhills. He claimed to be a terrible downhill runner, although I never did see evidence of that. As we reached Buffalo Pass, Karl and I stopped to look back for our competition across the high valley we had just crossed. We saw no one. “I don’t even feel like I’m running yet,” said Karl. He was in his element; steep and technical trails with an abundance of climbing.

“I’ve had better days,” replied Scott when I asked him how he felt. I thought so. I’ve run with Scott often enough to easily detect when he does not feel well. Although he offered no excuses, he would admit a few hours later that he had woken up with cold-like symptoms over the previous two days, and was thus feeling far more fatigued than normal. During the next few miles, I discussed Scott’s condition with Brandon and Karl, and we made the decision to have Scott lead our pack for a while, and to always keep someone behind him if he wasn’t leading. Keeping an ailing runner within the middle of the pack prevents him from feeling that he is “hanging on” and becoming depressed (a lesson we learned from the 2001 race). Also, having Scott lead allowed him to set a pace that he could sustain despite his fatigued condition. I thought if anyone could deal with the combined effects of being ill and running in hot weather, it was Scott.

Despite my confidence in Scott, I felt the pace was now slow enough that our competition could make a run at us. Rather than dwell on Scott’s condition and our relaxed pace, I consoled myself by enjoying the surroundings. The trail traversed high, open meadows littered with what seemed like thousands of boulders. We hopped and skipped as much as we ran through this section. The vistas of surrounding mountains and the ocean were inspiring. The beautiful terrain and the surprising lack of competition—as well as the fun technical footing—made this section seem fun despite the heat.

After a number of steep descents and ascents, we came upon a stretch of trail that ran along a steep, spine-like ridgeline that separates the large cities of Kowloon and Sha Tin (towns within Hong Kong, analogous to the boroughs of Harlem and Brooklyn in New York City). This section passed checkpoints four (at 47 km) and five (at 54 km). With hundreds of massive skyscrapers covering the vistas, we ran and hiked along technical trails, in and out of forests, bamboo thickets and meadows, over many steep staircases and along a few short paved roads. Scott had a brief but enjoyable resurgence of energy in this section, which raised everyone’s spirits.

The next spot we would meet our crew would be between checkpoints five and six, at around 58 km. This was not a checkpoint, but was a location where a main road crossed the trail, allowing crew access. This area was interesting because it is inhabited by a large (more than 100 members) and aggressive band of monkeys. Because people tend to feed the monkeys, they have become aggressive and will scratch those that do not immediately provide food—and the monkeys know that fanny packs contain yummy stuff. One of our local crewmembers met us as we approached the monkeys and ran in front of us with a stick to clear a path through them. We emerged from our encounter with the wild animals unscathed, grabbed our lights, food and water from our crew, and then started up the longest hill climb on the course.

We proceeded up a long paved road to checkpoint six (61 km), and then, as the sun set, began our ascent up Needle Hill. Needle Hill is the epitome of Hong Kong trails; it is wickedly steep and the staircase trail proceeds straight up with no switchbacks. We had a pacer, Scott Tucker of Montrail, during this section. Tucker helped to lighten the atmosphere by providing enjoyable conversation and a fresh attitude. When we finally summited Needle Hill we were in a grassy area with a nearly 360-degree view of the surroundings, including the bright lights of the skyscrapers of Hong Kong and Kowloon in the background. In fact, the entire course from below Needle Hill to checkpoint eight was above treeline, providing spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, ocean, and the lights of the towering metropolis. We descended the backside (equally steep and treacherous) only to ascend up to the highest point on the course (957 meters), Tai Mo Shan (which means “very foggy mountain”). After another hour of fast hiking and running on both paved roads and rocky trails, we summited Tai Mo Shan (at 72 km), and began the long descent to the finish.

The course descends steeply to checkpoint eight (at 80 km), the last place we would see our crew. We restocked, picked up two more pacers in addition to Scott—Menno Van Wyk of Montrail, along with a Hong Kong native runner who knew the course—and began the final push for the finish. The next 10 km took us through a beautiful forest along a winding road that rolled gently downhill. We ran very quickly through this section. After checkpoint nine (at 90 km) the course became single-track, a smooth trail that wound along the shores of a reservoir for nearly seven km. Our pacers informed us that the course record was within striking distance. However, at this point we all shared one goal: to get the damn race over with. If we lowered the course record in the process that would be fine, but just finishing it as fast as possible was our main objective. Not only were we near the end of a long run, but we were also nearing the end of a long year of running, and we were aware that once this race was over we could all begin our winter breaks from training and racing. The last three km were on a paved roads; I ran with Scott the entire way, cheering him on as he displayed an amazing show of grit and strength.

As we rounded the last corner we saw the bright lights of the finish line, so we joined together and crossed as a united team. Despite the elevated heat and Scott’s sickness, we lowered the course record to 12:47. The Cosmo Boys captured second place for the second year in a row, in a time of 13:53. After the flashbulbs died down and the media interviews were completed, we retired to the awards area to await the women’s team. We were all worn out but pleased with our performance and our teamwork. The women’s victory sealed the success of our trip. Both teams had achieved their goals, and raised money for Oxfam in the process. We appreciate the generous donations made by many people, which allowed us to contribute thousands of dollars to the charity.

A total of 976 teams (3,704 runners and walkers) were entered in this year’s Trailwalker. The finishing rate for teams was 67 percent. The last team finished in 47 hours and 41 minutes. Entrants were from Hong Kong, Australia, Mainland China, Great Britain, Japan, Nepal, Singapore, Finland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Malaysia, India, France, Italy, Africa and the United States. The total charity funds raised was approximately HK $17million. Now, the question remains: when will there be a Trailwalker-like race in the U.S.?